Even by Dutch standards, the current in-fighting and mud-slinging going on at Ajax is unprecedented. The board, the chief executive and the club chairman have all resigned after losing their fight with Johan Cruyff over the future of the Netherlands' most famous, and successful, football club.
In their hour of need Ajax turned to their greatest player; Cruyff was asked his opinion on how to lift it out of its current slump and he told them to hand the power over to a coterie of former players. The board did not like his reply, and Cruyff's brusque manner, and what followed has been a slanging match that has been carried out in the full glare of the Dutch media. The argument has descended into name calling, veiled threats and leaked emails – and the bloodletting shows no sign of stopping. The outcome could either be the return of Ajax as a force in European football again, or it could become the postscript to the club that won the European Cup three years in a row in the 1970s.
Yet, against this background, somehow, Ajax have in the past month won three games, despite selling their best player Luis Suarez to Liverpool in January, and are actually getting closer to winning their first Eredivisie title since 2004.
The catalyst to the explosive row that is tearing Ajax apart is Cruyff, who is almost a pensioner but has lost none of his ability to ruffle feathers. As a footballer he is without peer in the club's history. He led the club to six Dutch titles and three European Cups in seven seasons. Cruyff's aim, as he approaches his 64th birthday on Monday, is to lead Ajax back to their pre-eminent position in Dutch football.
The row began in February, when Cruyff was invited back to Ajax as an advisor on technical, financial and organisational issues. His main concern was to once again cultivate a steady flow of brilliant young players, the cornerstone of the great Ajax teams of the past. In the 1970s, Rinus Michels introduced the world to Total Football, and the likes of Cruyff, Johan Neeskens, Ruud Krol, Arie Haan and Johnny Rep.
In the 1980s, Ajax's famous De Toekomst (which roughly translates as "the future") academy continued to churn out players such as Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard, followed by Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Kluivert, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, Frank and Ronald de Boer, Marc Overmars and Edwin van der Sar into the 1990s. It was an unprecedented crop, one which would always be hard to reproduce. Now, in the post-Bosman era, it would be nigh on impossible to keep such a team together.
However, since the last European Cup triumph of 1995, the flow of young talent has become a trickle, and the likes of Wesley Sneijder, Rafael van der Vaart and Nigel de Jong have all left the club after an average of four seasons. The problem has become a grave one for the club who, just like their English equivalent Arsenal, have not won their league now for six seasons.
In their 111th year, Ajax turned to Cruyff, and not for the first time – he became their manager in the mid-80s and also enjoyed a brief spell as technical director in 2008. This time they were keen to tap into the expertise that started a revolution at Barcelona over 20 years ago, that sowed the seeds for the Catalan side's current pre-eminence. Cruyff introduced the Ajax philosophy to the Nou Camp with remarkable success, landing four La Liga titles and the European Cup in 1992.
Cruyff was asked to advise Ajax where they are going wrong. Needless to say, the club's hierarchy did not like the results. He delivered a 12-page report that concluded that eight coaches should be sacked, including Jan Olde Riekerink, who is head of the academy, and replaced with former Ajax stars. Cruyff's blueprint involved himself, Rijkaard and Van Basten as advisors, and promoting Wim Jonk and Bergkamp to work alongside current coach Frank de Boer, with Jonk to oversee scouting and Bergkamp to rule the academy. Cruyff also wanted to give jobs to former Ajax players Overmars, Dick Schoenaker, Peter Boeve and Keje Molenaar.
"It's 100 per cent football people who are talking about football," Cruyff said. "When world famous players talk about football, what should be the attitude of the people who are deciding who do not know nothing about football?"
Riekerink hit back in a Dutch newspaper, claiming Cruyff's "blueprint" was lightweight, that the Ajax legend had come up with nothing they did not already know at the academy, and that he was advocating sacking eight youth coaches simply because he did not know them.
The club blanched at the idea of paying out more than £1m in redundancy terms. They also feared for the legality of the move, having a few months earlier attempted to dismiss head coach Hans van der Zee who took them to a tribunal and won.
The board was also unhappy about Cruyff's confrontational manner and desire to push through change quickly. In particular they opposed promoting Bergkamp to head up the academy and leaked stories claiming the former Arsenal striker was not temperamentally suited to the task. Their stance angered Cruyff. "Unbelievable, unacceptable and incredible. The board and management will need to go if they stick to this," was his response.
When the board refused to co-operate, the Cruyff camp withdrew their services and announced they would take action at the members' council at the end of March. That council is one of the tiers of Ajax's complicated organisational structure, between the Ajax Union members, the highest authority, and the board of directors. The board resigned on masse before that meeting, followed by the chairman Uri Coronel and finally, on Monday, the chief executive Rik van den Boog. The latter had been trying to keep the peace but lost patience.
Bergkamp admitted he was shocked to hear that the Ajax management were trying to shelve Cruyff's plan. "This is weird. We've worked on this for months. We have a team of great ex-players who are passionate and want to give time and energy to the club. Today, Ajax is mediocre. We need to change that," the 41-year-old said.
Cruyff has returned to his home in Barcelona but he seems to have won his power struggle, as elections for a new board of directors are being arranged. Peace however is not too likely given the way Cruyff is digging his heels in, although the Dutch superstar denies he is responsible for tearing his old club in two. "That's not the idea. The idea is with Ajax not winning the league for seven years. If they want to come back into leading positions again they've got to change things," he said.
"I don't want a coup, I want co-operation. When Ajax greats like this are willing to come to the aid of the club, to manage the first team and to develop youth, the non-football people should say, 'Thank you', and follow the instructions."
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